I thought my dreams were about to come true when I [finally] got married.
I left my family, friends, and my job as a pastor in Canada to move to the U.S. for love. I had waited a long time to meet a guy I could partner with in ministry. My American husband had wooed me with his discourse of our shared theological studies, passion for church work, and a vision of us as a happily married couple in ministry together. Babies would complete the picture of our Christian nuclear family.
After our vows, I was shocked to immediately find myself in a different kind of nuclear situation: domestic violence.
My new husband quickly became emotionally abusive after having displayed only charm, attentiveness, and romance in our whirlwind courtship. As the weeks and months went by, I was yelled at for paying a bill a couple days in advance, for disagreeing with him about what gym I should work out at, or for the temperature I cooked with on the stove. If I left the sponge in the sink—instead of the counter—harsh words came my way.
When I questioned the values and theology of his church (which he had claimed was open to women in leadership, but was explicitly complementarian) he told me that nobody liked me and I wasn’t called to be a pastor. Over time his behavior escalated from trying to control my choices, to blaming me for his anger, to yelling. He shamed me with critical words and verbal assaults, and threatened to cheat on me or have me deported.
My husband also closely monitored my spending. I am a serious saver by nature so the only things I bought were groceries, household supplies, gas, and an occasional Starbucks. He, however, bought thousands of dollars of sound equipment and endless gadgets for his car. I wasn’t allowed to work until I received my Green Card, but my husband quit his job at the church to start a business in the midst of an economic downturn. He spent thousands of our savings on this failed venture. There was never a time when we calmly discussed our financial situation or work opportunities. He made all the decisions and I was powerless to stop him.
My awakening came through the wisdom of a female pastor (at another church) who named my experience as domestic abuse.
I’m a pretty smart woman who has traveled and worked around the world with some of the poorest and most oppressed women. Yet I hadn’t recognized that my husband’s behavior was abusive. I’ve never heard a sermon on domestic abuse—besides the ones I’ve preached since my experience. I had never had relationship violence explained to me in our pre-marital counseling, in youth group, in bible studies, or at seminary. As far as I could tell from the media, domestic violence was defined as bruises or broken bones.
What I did know was that something was seriously wrong in my marriage.
Wanting to be a good Christian, and a good wife, I did everything I could to fix ‘our’ problems. I went to counseling, had spiritual direction, prayed endlessly, spoke in softer tones, attempted to have collaborative discussions. I read every book I could find about Christian marriage and ‘wifehood.’ I asked numerous pastors at his church for help. One pastor literally closed the door in my face when, terrified of my husband, I begged for his help. Another simply threw his hands up in the air after numerous times of hearing my experience of being yelled at, controlled, and financially trapped in a loveless marriage. I even tried some well-meaning woman’s advice to put on a dress, make dinner, and light some candles. Nothing stopped the abuse.
It takes two to tango. It takes ONE person to abuse another.
I soon learned that domestic violence is solely the fault of the abusive partner, and the only one who can stop it is the perpetrator. Thanks to the female pastor who first identified that I was being abused, I learned about the five forms of abuse: emotional, physical, sexual, financial, and spiritual.
The basic definition of domestic abuse is a pattern of abusive behaviors used by one person in an intimate relationship to control another. It is characterized by abusers attempting or gaining power and control over their partner through intentional choices that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, injure, or otherwise wound the other individual.
One day I chose to be free to heal from domestic violence.
Just five months after we married, my husband sat me down in our living room and told me that he had drained our shared bank account of over $20,000. He cut up my credit and debit cards, leaving me alone in a foreign country, unemployed, and soon to be homeless. As he told me of his secret stealing from our account, his face remained calm and deadpan.
Speaking eerily in a cold, unwavering tone he told me that he was sure I was bipolar (I’m not, you can ask my therapist). He said he was going to use this to get our marriage ‘biblically’ annulled and have me deported back to Canada. I was so terrified at his crazy actions and threats that I ran out of the house without putting my shoes on. And friends, I love my shoes.
Healing from the trauma of abuse is a long, complicated journey and the church often isn’t a safe place to recover.
After leaving my abusive husband I connected with Christian friends in Canada who helped me recover. Throughout this ‘dark night of the soul’ I discovered that 1 in 3 women—of all ages, and of every ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geographic location—experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. Yet the Christian church is largely silent on this topic. I struggled to find resources that integrated robust theology with clinical psychology, to understand the trauma of abuse and to learn how to heal.
I wanted to be faithful to God and to my theological training. But I also wanted to discover what evidence-based research had to say about recovery for survivors. Simple Christian platitudes weren’t going to stop the terror I felt, knowing that my ex could find and kill me. (Not an uncommon situation for female survivors of domestic abuse.) And secular therapy wasn’t going to help me address my quest to understand where God was in my trauma.
I found a couple of books that incorporated good Christian theology with proven trauma-insights, but mostly I had to piece together my own domestic violence recovery program. With the help of friends, counselors, spiritual mentors, domestic violence shelters, spiritual practices, and tons of reading, I slowly found myself free to heal in the presence of God’s transformative compassion.
Along the way, I discovered a new calling: to help other women heal from relationship abuse.
I am a firm believer that the church can—and should be—a safe place for women to get practical, spiritually-integrated, trauma-informed information and resources on domestic abuse So, naturally, I decided to do a Ph.D. to make this happen! (Because who doesn’t want to sit endlessly reading books and writing papers for a few years?)
I am worth being free to heal and flourish as God intended, and so are they.
Visit Ally Moder’s website for free resources and to learn more about domestic abuse.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. I am not married, but experienced, as a child, the emotional abuse of my mother by my father. It’s so frustrating when people have judged her divorce without knowing the reality of that violence, even if it wasn’t physical. You’re doing vitally important work. I am interested in learning more about your research on an integrative approach to recovery from trauma. Thankful for the work of healing God has done and is doing in your life.
A video of her testimony, about 10 minutes; you may need to turn your volume up near maximum to hear this well. http://www.allykern.com/speaking/
Thank you for sharing this!
This was given at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2016 during #DomesticViolenceAwarenessMonth. It is a great privilege to share my story!
Thank you, Ally. Your story resounds with me and is making me think about this issue of emotional abuse in marriage (more often, derided as “overreaction” on the victim’s part). I would love to hear more about how to extract oneself from such an unhealthy marriage, especially when children are involved.
Considering the financial and economic restraints of many women in such Christian (so-called) marriages, i.e. staying at home, foregoing career and education, having no savings, and possibly having no family/friend support (if they are all in the same church and don’t believe the woman should divorce), not to mention the overwhelming advice of Christian leaders and pastors that the victim should be a martyr for Jesus by staying (thereby resulting in further guilt and uncertainty), it is one major hurdle to recognize the marriage to be unhealthy, and another whole “ball of wax” to safely (if possible) leave.
Loura, thank you for your reflective thoughts on this vital issue. You are quite right that emotional abuse is often unrecognized, and that financial abuse plays a substantial role in creating a barrier for women to leave abusive relationships. Leaving can be a very dangerous time, so a safety plan is absolutely key!
A female counselor named my Christian’s husband’s behavior towards me as emotional abuse. It took me a full year to accept that word, and another full year to understand that the only way to end it was to leave my husband. Although the divorce itself was traumatic, God has been restored to me the years lost to famine and has brought healing and a new life where I am thriving. Even my adult children are in a better place than they were.
DM, your post somehow ended up in our spam file, so I just found it – sorry for the delay in publishing! I am so sorry to hear what you had to go through, but so glad to hear that you are thriving! Thanks for sharing some of your journey with our readers.
Thank you so much for writing this. I briefly worked in a church office where the priest slammed his door in an abused woman’s face – I was just 17 and still stuck with my abusive mother, so I didn’t think this odd.
If anyone is going to talk about domestic abuse in religious circles, it will have to be the survivors:(
It is an honour to share my store and help cultivate space for others to find safe places to heal. I hope you have found compassionate people to help hold your story.
Thank you for helping break the silence with a bit of your own story as well!
This painful story is all too familiar to many in the evangelical church. Somehow we must take off our blinders and acknowledge that an inadequate view of gender equality is a seedbed for potential abuse. If the male is given tacit permission by scripture to be “dominant,” the distortion occasioned by unhealthy personalities can be destructive. Having been a pastor, a juridical overseer, and a denominational administrator, I have seen the damage done to women in marriages or in dating relationships on several occasions. God give us the courage to address this difficult truth with integrity, redemptive intervention, appropriate theological and therapeutic resources, and healingly supportive relationships.
Jesse—I truly appreciate your passion to help stand up for women’s safety and healing! Thank you for being an advocate in the church.
Dr. Middendorf, thank you for being an ally! We appreciate you.
So appreciate your words and understanding!
This is why I no longer go to church. I begged for help and was told I was unbendable and un teachable by my pastors because I was putting my foot down on the abuse. I was abused by my ex in EVERY way possible! I actually hate Christians now. I have zero trust in anyone who says they’re a Christian now, and this coming from a girl who became a Christian at 15 and went to church three times a week. I LOVE the Lord with ALL my heart, but I DO NOT trust His people!
I am so sorry for what you have gone through! The Church should have been there for you and it wasn’t. I wouldn’t trust people claiming to be Christians after that either.
The Church isn’t what it should be, and theology that gives men authority over women only strengthens the abuser. I pray we will get better at living up to the name of Christ. My hope is that as more women enter church leadership, church leaders will be better equipped to understand abuse, preach against it, and actually help people who are in abusive relationships.
Why did a pastor shut the door in this lady’s face? That is the question. Why is this so often the response of the church men? Is this what Jesus did to the woman caught in adultery…and yet this woman had done nothing of the sort. So why? Why? WHY?
I can no longer attend a Complementarian church because I know this is the NORMAL reaction of the all male leadership of such churches…they just are so socially inept and have NO comprehension about the lives of women in their midst. There is no compassion. There is no awareness. They live as single men with wives who live in the back yards of their lives.
Complementarianism is evil…it breeds evil. The pastor who shut the door on the woman acted in an evil manner…no less so than her husband.
I have no longer a church to go to because aside from the men, I agreed with all the other teachings in the church and miss my fellowship, but I will never again support such a church financially. They are run by aggressive men and even the good men and set aside and kicked around…this is purely Satanic.
I keep hoping to find a church with deep spiritual teaching and real equality where the people in charge are not A type men.
Judy—It was indeed a frightening and painful experience when the male pastor refused to help me. However, I was very lucky to also have a number of other male theologians and pastors who were invaluably supportive. You are right that many women do not. I hope you have compassionate people who journey with you in true community as Jesus did.
May you know peace,
I’ve heard sermons and seen examples of good Christian marriages. What’s most galling is that its so easy to be misguided in the name of Christianity and abuse your spouse – that’s what stood it to me most and that’s what should be cautioned from the pulpit, again and again.
I agree with you that abuse is easy to perpetrate—by anyone. We must all continue to bring our mind and heart before God, receiving God’s love and healing so that we, too, don’t act in ways that harm others.
Thank you for sharing your story, Ally. So many women need to hear it. I hope your education is giving you an intellectual framework to make sense of abuse, including abuse within “Christian” marriages. And, I hope you write a follow up about liberatory scriptures and theology which helped you understand your value, which gave you strength to move forward, and which helped you begin to heal.
Patti—yes, my education continues to be an incredibly meaningful and helpful way of processing my own suffering as well as enabling others to be free to heal.
Stay tuned! I will be posting a theological understanding of domestic abuse soon!
Can’t wait for this theological description Ally. Thanks so much for sharing your story and wisdom.
Thank you for your kind words! The theological post on domestic abuse should be out soon.
God, I could write a book about this subject. Someday I will, when I can handle it. Thank you so much for writing about this sad but important topic.
Carla—may you know the compassionate embrace of community and God in the midst of your own story. Thank you for sharing your voice!
Ally I’m so glad you got out and found healing with God. Judges 19 is what ran through my head reading your story. The husband who doesn’t care, and His arrogance and cold heart winds up killing his wife. Emotional abuse.
Yes this topic bothers me a lot. I’m a new Christian woman and I’ve seen domestic abuse. I want to wait for marraige, but what if he becomes abusive after marraige (that’s a pattern, right), will the church still accept me if I leave, because leave I will. God has done great work in me and He ain’t wanting it thrown away.
All God’s blessings with the PhD.
I rejoice with you in how God has been—and continues to be—at work in your life! May you find Christian community that compassionately embraces you fully, just as God does. Indeed, God has provided separation and divorce as a means of protecting the vulnerable.
Stay tuned for a post about this, soon!
Ally, I applaud your transparency and willingness to publicly address this issue. I’m a volunteer pastor and have never heard (or preached) a sermon on domestic violence or abuse. I’ve never heard anything said about what marriage is supposed to be biblically unless it’s a sermon on wifely submission from Ephesians 5. You wrote about something which should immediately have light shone on it, and I thank you for bringing it out.
Kim—The only sermon I have ever heard is the one I preached! You can find a link to a sermon I gave on Ephesians 5—on mutual submission in marriage—on my website.
Thank you for your ministry and support!
Hello I just finished a book called, Jesus Loves Women So Much. It is on Amazon.
In my book I deal with issues of abuse and divorce and how Jesus treated Women.
Thank you for sharing and all your help.
Congratulations on the book, Adele!